Acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou may not have had a stateside hit in a long time, but he hasn’t ever stopped creating films. While the last film of his I recall seeing get any kind of wide release was Curse of the Golden Flower back in 2006 (we’re all going to forget that The Great Wall exists), Yimou has released films pretty regularly over in China. His last few have even been well-received both critically and commercially, even if they aren’t widely spoken about.
When I saw that his latest film, Full River Red, was getting distributed in the states, I was eager to watch it. Yimou is responsible for some of the most aesthetically pleasing films ever committed to celluloid, the least of which is Hero. Clearly, the man knows how to direct the hell out of a picture. His new film had to be good, right?
While Full River Red won’t go down as one of Yimou’s best films, it is a fun enough time that is sure to make you chuckle a bit.
Full River Red
Director: Zhang Yimou
Release Date: January 22, 2023 (China), March 17, 2023 (Limited US)
The best way to summarize the plot of Full River Red without giving away any of the twists is honestly to paraphrase the Wikipedia entry. The film is set at the beginning of the Southern Song Dynasty and concerns the mysterious murder of a Jin Dynasty official at chancellor Qin Hui’s (Lei Jiayin) estate. Solider Zhang Da (Shen Teng) and commander Sun Jun (Jackson Yee) become prime suspects and are given two hours to figure out what happened to avoid execution. Cue a tremendous amount of twists and turns that take place over a nearly three-hour runtime.
To pull from a contemporary film, Full River Red is sort of like the Chinese equivalent of Knives Out. I understand that it may be a bit reductive, but what surprised me the most about this film is how funny it can be. I honestly didn’t look up anything about this movie before watching it, but Yimou’s past work has either been serious drama or action. To see Zhang Da getting smacked to the beat of a Peking Opera drum while mumbling like an idiot in front of the chancellor is hilarious.
If you know anything about Chinese history, you’ll likely be questioning if I’ve flubbed up by noting Peking Opera -which comes from the Qing Dynasty– for a film set within the Song Dynasty. The two aren’t even closely related, but one of Full River Red’s neatest gimmicks is that Yimou sort of borrows a Baz Luhrmann staple by using anachronistic music. It’s not tacky like how Luhrmann incorporates pop songs into historical pieces, but more like an odd distraction for when the film needs to get people from point-A to point-B.
During the opening scene, Zhang Da is explaining how some letter from Jin is located within the walls of the chancellor’s compound and that it might be related to the death of the Jin official. Cue a drone shot of Zhang Da and Sun Jun walking through the complex set to Chinese hip hop. I did not expect a Mandarin singer to be busting out sick rhymes in a Zhang Yimou film, and while I initially recoiled in horror, by the second hour I was enamored.
So the film is clearly playing with expectations to either confuse you or mislead you. It fits in with the characterization of everyone in this film. Much like in Knives Out, characters have their own motives and are typically three or four steps ahead of each other when it comes to plot points. Detailing the specifics will ruin the film entirely, so I’ll refrain from that, but the central focus of Full River Red is on Zhang Da and Sun Jun’s complicated relationship. Sun Jun is Zhang Da’s uncle and the two of a storied history. Jun’s sister took Da in and made her brother swear to care for the dopey fool. Da repaid that kindness by getting Jun a position within the army, which is where his current aspirations lie.
Right from there, you have a solid dynamic established for why these characters are either lying to each other or to everyone around them. The two are trying to protect themselves from execution while also unraveling another plot that links them to the Jin letter. It’s interesting stuff that gets more and more complicated as the film progresses.
By that same measure, the number of twists and turns becomes almost farcical by the time the credits roll. Practically everyone in this film is related in the vaguest of ways and while I won’t get into those details, the last 40-ish minutes of the movie can be summed up as, “He knows that I know that he knows that I know.” It just becomes too much to not only keep track of but realistically believe.
Thankfully, the personalities here are solid. The acting is all great and while I’m not familiar with a lot of these actors, many are big stars over in China. Shen Teng, for instance, is a famous comedian and one of the most influential celebrities in China. He has a rather subdued performance for most of Full River Red until the film calls for melodrama.
Lei Jiayin is made up in some pretty remarkable makeup that makes him look much older than he actually is and he plays the aging strategist role well. Zhang Yi and Yue Yunpeng, who plays Lord He and Lord Wu, are yin and yangs of each other with one being a conniving backstabber while the other is a ruthless official. The real highlights are with newcomers Jackson Yee and Wang Jiayi, however.
Yee brings a very calculated and stoic quality to Sun Jun, making you question where his true allegiance lies at every turn. One moment, he feels positioned as an evil monster while the next, he comes off as misunderstood and confused. Wang Jiayi, portraying a courtesan named Zither, doesn’t get much screen time but acts as the emotional crux of the film’s second act. She has a quality similar to a young Zhang Ziyi and I really hope she starts to appear in more productions.
Where things start to crumble a little is with regard to pacing. Full River Red is a substantial movie in terms of its duration, but the film feels much longer due to the start-and-stop nature of things. While most of the pieces slot into place by the end, there are some leads that Da and Jun take that wind up going nowhere and necessitate the two to restart. The film practically has six different spots where it could begin and it really drags on.
This is also a very strangely scaled-back production for Zhang Yimou. More so than his dramatic and action prowess, Yimou is known for capturing beautiful cinematography with elaborate sets and extensive costuming. Full River Red looks appropriately ancient, but the only time we get anything resembling an establishing shot is when the Song army is shown.
Most of this film is shot within close quarters and with a shot/reverse shot setup. A few rooms have more detailed construction and there are a couple of tracking shots and drone shots, but Full River Red could be best described as an economical film for Yimou. I can tell this was done to put a focus on the characters and the reported budget of CN¥500 million -equivalent to $72 million- explains a lot of these cutbacks. Still, I can’t lie and say I wasn’t disappointed by the minimal set design.
Ultimately, though, the ride through Full River Red is enjoyable enough to make the experience feel worthwhile. There is some Chinese history here for those interested with the film’s title being based on a legendary Yue Fei poem, but this is hardly a documentary. This is more a historical comedy whodunit with charming performances and some oft-kilter musical choices.
If nothing else, you might become a fan of Chinese hip-hop after you watch this.